The British government recently warned local authorities and front line staff – including those at airports – to be aware of the increased risk of forced marriage during the summer holidays. Summer holidays are a prime time for British girls to be taken abroad to be forced into marriage and hundreds of suspected victims disappear every year.
A charity recently publicised a piece of advice they give to callers who contact their helpline – to put spoons in their underwear when being taken abroad to set off the metal detector at the airport. In theory, the potential victim is then taken aside and has one last chance to alert the authorities that they are at risk of being forced into marriage.
Both mainstream and specialist media quickly picked the story up – including The Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Independent and The Guardian – and ran it as a slightly quirky angle on a legitimately topical issue. This wide-spread publicity, however, is a double-edged sword – perpetrators are just as likely to hear the news as potential victims are.
Any perpetrators who do hear of this ‘secret’ tactic are more likely to check the victim for metal objects before leaving for the airport. This leaves the victim vulnerable to retaliatory anger and actions.
Secondly, very often victims are not even aware they are being taken abroad for the purpose of marriage. They are commonly told they are just going on a summer holiday or to visit family. It is only once they are abroad that they are informed of the true intention behind the trip. Forced marriage is an issue usually shrouded in secrecy and planned behind closed doors. Even if potential victims have suspicions they do not always know when or if the marriage will occur.
The success of the ’spoon trick’ then depends on the victim feeling comfortable disclosing their concerns to airport security. Forced marriage is a complicated crime where perpetrators are usually otherwise loving family members. It is hard to rely on a young and frightened victim reporting their family members to strangers, particularly uniformed officials who may not have had any sensitivity training on the issue.
Crucially, there is no mention of how this tactic may work for those children who are under 16 and have to be supervised when taken to a private area to be checked. How do those children voice their concerns with someone from their family there? How would they then explain what they were doing with the spoon?
Lastly what actually happens to those victims once they have been detected? Do they then go back home to their parents, who tried to force them into a marriage in the first place? Informing airport security is only a valid route to preventing forced marriage if there is a protocol to immediately draw in a child protection officer or a social worker who specialises in forced marriage cases. All airport security should be trained on how to spot and respond to potential forced marriage cases. Well-meaning but ill-informed interventions can often do more damage than good.
Although forced marriage is clearly an abuse of human rights and forms part of the continuum of violence against women and girls, it is a distinct and complicated issue requiring specialist work.
Whilst raising awareness of this issue is vital, it must never be done in a way which poses further risk to the victim.